My First Christmas in Switzerland

It was to be my first Christmas in Switzerland and all the clichés sprang to mind. Those winter wonderland scenes from countless Christmas cards would come to life. The snow was sure to be deep and crisp and even, with more than enough to stop even Bing dreaming. I imagined cheery red faces round the coloured lights of the tree: dining tables weighed down with turkey and trimmings: crackers with party hats and daft jokes: maiden aunts giggling helplessly after a couple of sips from their annual glass of sherry. And Of Course Santa Claus. I even wondered what the Swiss watched on TV over Christmas.

That was over 25 years ago and I'm still waiting for Swiss Christmas to start.

The lower lying areas of Switzerland rarely get snow in late December and the near riotous razzmatazz and ballyhoo that is the American and British Christmas never reaches here at all.

If this is to be your first Swiss Christmas, try not to be disappointed. It won't be all partying, eating, drinking and tele-gazing, but it will be different, very different.

The first event in the Swiss festive calendar has already passed: St Nicholas Day on December 6. The Swiss have somewhat a different concept of what the good saint is all about. Instead of piling down from the North Pole in an overloaded sleigh powered by flying and occasionally red-nosed reindeer, the Swiss St Nicholas turns up on foot two weeks early with a donkey and a dirty-faced assistant in tow. This Santa doesn't shower eager kids with the very latest in microchip-powered inventions from the toy industry, but comes instead with nuts and tangerines. Even then he only parts with these modest gifts after receiving a good account of the children's behaviour and they have recited a suitable poem for him. Samiclaus even leaves behind a bunch of twigs at the homes of badly-behaved children with the threat of a thrashing if they do not improve.

This occasion is accompanied by Grittibanz - gingerbread men with no gingerbread in them. This is also the sign for Swiss housewives to embark on their annual baking marathon. Say goodbye to mince pies, turkey and Christmas pud, but say hello to Christmas biscuits or cookies called Guetzli. These are baked by the million in kitchens throughout the land in the run up to Christmas. Buying them ready-made from the supermarket is frowned upon, so every housewife has her own recipes. You might be forgiven for thinking that after slaving for hours over a hot oven, there would be nothing better than putting one's feet up and enjoying the fruit of one's labour. But no: these biscuits are not for eating. They are for giving away to friends. These friends, who have themselves been locked away in a steamy kitchen, will present their own Guetzli in return. The upshot is that, after hours of effort, everyone ends up with a surfeit of Christmas biscuits which they consider vastly inferior to their own bake. You will be disappointed if you are expecting a pile of Christmas cards in the post from Swiss friends, cards are not popular. The Swiss are amazed to learn that the British go to work with bundles of cards for workmates they see every day. And that the average British home receives enough cards to decorate the walls.

Trees play an important role in Swiss festivities (real ones of course) and can be bought on street corners from authorised vendors. By the way, they leave their stock out under the stars at night and it's all still there the next morning. There will be no coloured lights on these trees, lights are only white. Or, much to the chagrin of the safety conscious, real candles will be lit without any regard for the potentially lethal mix of fir and fire.

Swiss Christmas is nearly over before it begins. Christmas Eve, December 24. is a normal working day, but instead of having to wait until the next morning. Swiss kids gel their presents that evening courtesy of the Christ Child. Details vary, but presents, and sometimes the tree, are usually left in a closed or even locked room by this mysterious angel figure. Towards midnight there will be special church services for Catholic and Protestant alike.
Those used to December 25 being the high spot of the year will wonder when it is all going to start. It won't. Swiss Christmases are low-key affairs. Families sit admiring their tree and perhaps sing a carol or two round it when the candles are lit. Forget blockbuster films on the TV, along with crackers and party hats. But there will be lots to eat with other people's Christmas biscuits going aplenty. The wine will flow, but not to excess. And a quiet old time will be had by all. We are lucky this year as there is a day off work. When Christmas falls over a weekend, there are no other days off in lieu for the work-weary.

In case you were beginning to wonder about getting away from Switzerland for this season, there is a bright light at the end of the tunnel called New Year. This is when the Swiss party, send cards, let their fireworks off and their hair down. To prove it they have January 2 as a holiday in many cantons.

Exactly one month after the Swiss yuletide season kicked off, it is brought to a tidy end with "Three Kings' Day" on January 6. Another boon for bakers, this time in the form of Three Kings' Cake: a sweet cake baked from separate pieces of pale dough that can be easily pulled apart. One of these pieces contains a small white plastic king. These cakes are handed to children with the idea that whoever finds the king before choking on it can be king for the day. Each cake being supplied with a gold paper crown for this purpose.

I would be a sad, colourless world if everything were the same. Trust the Swiss to be a little different, even at this time of the year.